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Verdi Requiem (Susan Elkin reviews)

Canterbury Cathedral, 18 June 2016

Yes, it’s Verdi’s greatest opera. The passionate intensity, the astonishingly colourful orchestration (the piccolo cutting across the bass drum, for instance), the frequent use of unexpected minor keys and haunting rhythms, and the dramatic use of quartets and reprises all remind us that opera was Verdi’s day job.

And this powerful, popular work was in pretty good hands under Richard Cooke in a packed Cathedral. After a slightly shaky start – that sotto voce opening is notoriously difficult to do from cold especially in a venue with such a time lag – it settled into its stride as soon as it reached the firmer ground of Te decet hymnus.

Highlights included a Dies Irae perfomed as dramatically as I’ve ever heard it – enough to terrify even the staunchest unbeliever with every detail, especially in the woodwind, carefully allowed to push through the texture in the tenser passages. In Tuba mirum, the trumpets were temporarily placed prominently on either side of the choir – the effect being very persuasive. The choir was in fine collective voice and it was a delight to see the relatively new CCS Youth Choir, some of them very young, singing among the adults.

Sam Furness brought unusual sweetness as tenor soloist, especially in the Ingemiso tanquam and Offertorio and mezzo Katie Bray found plenty of claret-like richness especially in the lower notes of Lux Aeterna. Slightly (but only slightly) less successful was Michael Pearce as bass, although his Mors stupedit had real impact. Soprano Judith Howarth had her moments but occasionally seemed to be strained and her opening of Libera me was disappointingly lacking in tremulousness.

Of course the RPO is a fine orchestra and their presence raised the bar even above the standard which Canterbury Choral Society routinely achieves. Particularly impressive was the way Cooke ensured that their strength never overpowered the choir (who are assisted by very steep and high raking so that they were positioned well above the orchestra). Moreover he brought out many parts which usually go unnoticed. The Agnus dei moved me to tears, as it usually does, and that was heighted by hearing a string passage tucked into the texture which I’d never before heard stressed like that.

Cooke is very used to working in the Cathedral and to dealing with its poor acoustic. Magnificent building as it is, a concert hall it is not. Cooke waited longer than usual on every pause to let the sound die away completely, and there was a wonderful unrehearsed moment at the end when just as the final note was played the Cathedral clock struck nine as if it was joining in. Cooke kept his baton raised until that sound had died away too.

Originally published by Lark Reviews:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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